After a school in Cheshire announced it would be closing its sixth form over plummeting learner numbers, local colleges said they would be able to step in to take on the abandoned learners. David Igoe explains why the situation may be more than a one-off.

The story, late last month, of Culcheth High School in Warrington deciding to close its sixth form may be just the tip of the iceberg, as schools increasingly face up to the high cost of delivering sixth form education when numbers are declining.

With the average size of a school and academy sixth form hovering around 220 there will be many, like Culcheth, with numbers below 100.

It is hard to imagine how such schools maintain a reasonable curriculum and provide the tutorial support and enrichment that makes the sixth form experience an effective preparation for the world of work, or for further and higher education.

We could be facing an avalanche of displaced students, as schools and academies do the sums and realise that the amount of funding available for the sixth form is woefully inadequate.

Many choose to subsidise their small sixth forms by effectively ‘raiding’ the more generous funding available for their 11 to 16-year-old pupils, but there are obvious questions about whether this is either fair to pupils for whom the money is intended, or right to use it to maintain a sixth form when other parts of the service are being strapped for cash.

As the recent report from London Economics exposes, schools and academies can subsidise their sixth forms with up to £2,202 per student and this serves to mask the inadequacy of the 16 to 19 funding pot.

It will be mainly sixth form colleges, general FE and tertiary colleges who will be expected to mop up abandoned sixth formers

The truth is that, as the high levels of transitional and formula protection reach the end of their life in 2015, the reality of the 16 to 18 funding ‘level playing field’ will dissuade more and more schools and academies from offering a sixth form.

The irony is that successive administrations have promoted sixth forms as a major driver for school improvement and have encouraged all schools to have a sixth form no matter whether there is existing good local provision. Indeed, 138 new sixth forms have opened since 2011.

As all this unravels, it will be mainly sixth form colleges, general FE and tertiary colleges who will be expected to mop up abandoned sixth formers.

Fortunately, they are generally well placed to do so.

With the average sixth form college having 1,700 students they have a curriculum mix which can adapt to new demands and absorb additional students relatively easily. That is not to say there won’t be issues.

The lagged funding system makes it expensive to absorb extra students in the first year (you only get paid a year later) and there are more complexities when students transfer half way through their courses, as rarely do subject syllabi and examination boards dovetail into the existing provision with no guarantee that topics have been taught in the same order.

Most sixth form colleges have also outgrown their premises and pressure on space may require a swift Portakabin solution followed by a prompt capital injection to increase accommodation.

However, in general terms there are rarely insurmountable problems if and when a school/academy looks to offload its sixth form, provided there is a good quality sixth form college or general FE/tertiary nearby.

All this begs two glaring questions. What is the ‘best’ size for the sixth form? It is difficult, on curriculum grounds, to argue for a number less than 400 which rules out all but a handful of existing academies/schools and makes the case strongly for more sixth form colleges.

Secondly, what is a ‘sufficient’ funding rate to deliver an effective sixth form experience? Clearly the current level isn’t working and relies on subsidies. Even sixth form colleges, with their economies of scale, are struggling and colleges with fewer than 1,000 students are under great pressure.

Wouldn’t it be a final irony if it took the demise of the small school sixth form to rescue sixth form colleges most at risk from current policies on funding and sixth form proliferation.